As temperatures drop and heating bills rise, we’re watching the state Public Regulation Commission, which will soon shed its five elected members in favor of three appointees. That’s what legislators and voters want — for good reason.
In 2019 lawmakers, with broad bipartisan support, approved a constitutional amendment to restructure the PRC. Voters approved the amendment in 2020. Early this month a bipartisan nominating committee forwarded nine names to the governor.
“To do their jobs well, commissioners must have a rare combination of skills: technological expertise, legal acumen and a keen knowledge of regulatory matters,” argued Sens. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, Steven Neville, R-Aztec and William Payne, R-Albuquerque, in a 2019 op-ed.
The state’s most powerful regulator, the PRC controls electric, natural gas and water rates and regulates transportation and telecom. Its decisions can clobber business climate and economic development or open doors.
Commissioners are charged with making balanced decisions for consumers, the utilities they regulate and the state’s economic health. They need the brain of an engineer and the temperament of a judge. The subject matter is complicated and increasingly influenced by technology and climate change. It’s no place for on-the-job learning, but that’s what we’ve had.
We got to the amendment because of bonehead decisions, incompetence, ethical lapses and infighting.
Some commissioners have failed to read documents filed in cases — or if they did, they didn’t understand what they read. They ask questions of utilities, don’t read the answers and then ask more questions.
In recent years the PRC rejected a utility’s own plan for replacing its coal energy and chose a plan that didn’t provide enough power; the company now faces a power shortage. The PRC denied a project that economic developers wanted because they didn’t understand it. The commission got into a kerfuffle with the governor and Legislature over the Energy Transition Act and lost in court.
“The commission is more broken than I’ve ever seen it in 35 years,” an attorney for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental group, said in 2019. “It’s bad from top to bottom as a functional agency.”
That’s quite a statement considering its earlier track record. Between 2004 and 2011: A commissioner was accused of trying to sneak marijuana through airport security. In response to demands that she resign, she threatened to air her colleagues’ dirty laundry. A woman won $842,000 in damages for sexual harassment by a commissioner. A commissioner assaulted someone she believed was having an affair with her husband. A commissioner resigned after admitting to identity theft, credit card fraud and embezzlement.
Commissioners then were only required to be at least 18, be New Mexico residents for a year and not be convicted felons. They didn’t even need a high school diploma. Lawmakers and voters acted, but problems persisted.
Now for the first time since 1996 we’re returning to appointed rather than elected positions. Why? Because almost anybody can run for the PRC, voters can be snookered and candidates can be swayed by contributors. Once in office, elected officials are nearly untouchable, but the governor can remove appointed commissioners at will. That’s accountability.
Not everyone agrees. Three Native American groups, fearing appointees would favor energy companies over residents, asked the state Supreme Court to block the constitutional amendment. They were particularly concerned about District 4 in northwestern New Mexico, saying residents would be disenfranchised. They lost.
Here’s the elephant in the room. The challenge would have kept District 4 Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar in place. I’ve reported in the past that she has done a poor job representing her constituents. Importantly, no tribes, notably the Navajo Nation, opposed the amendment.
Looking at the backgrounds of the finalists gives me hope that we will have, probably for the first time, well-qualified people on the PRC.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author.